Sinbad didn't notice, at first, how Gunnar watched him. When he did, he couldn't think it was a new thing; the hunger in his eyes looked too well established, and had nothing to do with Cook's not-chicken soup.
That first night Tiger was aboard he found he couldn't escape those pale eyes. Gunnar had wedged himself back against the bulkhead, as always, keeping the hatch and everyone in the cabin in his line of sight. Only he wasn't doing his usual sweeps and checks, eyes flicking from place to place even as he talked with the group or listened in silence. Now every time Sinbad glanced his way, Gunnar's eyes were on him.
Gunnar left abruptly after their meal, and Sinbad followed. He watched from the shadows near the hatch as Gunnar methodically checked and rechecked the lines and sails. He coiled a loose rope, trailed his fingers over one of the fishing nets to feel for tears, and tugged the anchor line to see it was properly set. Then he blew his lamp out and stood for a moment, head tilted to the stars. The stillness of the night seemed to hold them both. The beams of the Providence creaked a little, and waves licked the hull, but the sounds felt muted in the moonless night.
Not knowing why, Sinbad found himself gripping the edge of the hatch until his knuckles paled. He wasn't quite holding his breath, but the air seemed almost to stick in his throat. He felt giddy for a moment, as though the ship were moving under him, though the water was still.
At last, Gunnar broke the spell, shoving away from the foremast with a grunt and striding aft. Sinbad tried to fade into the hatchway, and it seemed to work. Gunnar never even looked his way, but settled amidst the coiled lines along the port side and turned outward again.
They'd anchored in a little cove as far from the city of the stone as they could get in a day's sail. They'd lost their fair wind as the sun set, and now the water had fallen smooth, mirroring the stars. Sinbad had heard that far up in the Northlands the great bear ruled the sky all night, and the scorpion only ever showed its tail. He felt it must be a strange thing to look up and see a different fortune.
Maybe that was why Gunnar looked so miserable. Even in the starlight, Sinbad could see the harsh curves in his silhouette, the tense line of his back, the way his neck rippled as his teeth ground. Gunnar clenched the rail convulsively, making the wood creak, then suddenly slumped back against the bamboo canopy posts.
His head hit the wood with a thud, startling Sinbad into motion. He took the lantern from the hatchway and let his feet slap on the deck, but Gunnar didn't seem to notice him until they sat across from each other.
"I can sit watch," Gunnar said.
Sinbad set the lantern beside him, watching as the candlelight flickered across Gunnar's face. "I can sit with you."
"I will not be good company tonight."
"And why is that?"
Gunnar shrugged, more a twitch of his right shoulder than a real motion, and said nothing.
"All right." He leaned forward a little, deliberately brushing his knee against Gunnar's, and laid his hand on the rail, their fingers not quite touching. "I'll just wait here until you are."
In the cramped corner of the deck, pressed against the rail, Gunnar had no room to pull away. He tried anyway, twisting his legs to the side and folding his arms across his chest. "I would like you not to be here." The strain in his voice harshened his accent, making Arabic sound strange and exotic on his lips. "I would like to be alone."
"Why is that?"
Sinbad didn't even see see Gunnar move; his hand just seemed to appear around Sinbad's throat. The sword-calloused palm pressed into his wind pipe, unyielding as Tiger's iron collar, but not quite choking him. Sinbad raised his hands pleadingly, but Gunnar's eyes narrowed.
"If you do not go," he growled, "I will do something I will be sorry for."
"What, like this?" Sinbad asked, and pressed into the choke-hold until their lips touched. It was a gamble, but not much of one. He'd seen Gunnar in a red rage enough times, and too often wrapped in black depression, but this night was a beast of a new colour. Even in the lamplight, he could see the need in his eyes, and frustration in the set of his jaw, and maybe a tinge of the black threatening to swallow it all up.
So Sinbad pressed in, ignoring the way his throat closed, and held the kiss until Gunnar shoved him back. He lay where sprawled back across the deck, holding his hands up palms open. "I–" he had to cough and clear his throat. "I'm not sorry for that at all."
"You will be." Gunnar's voice sounded rougher than Sinbad's.
"I think I know what I want." When Gunnar shook his head, Sinbad added, "It's the same as you."
"I–" Gunnar dropped to his haunches, crouching above Sinbad. He was a big man, bigger still looming in the dark, every muscle taut as main sheets in a gale. Sinbad wasn't completely sure why his heart beat harder, but the edge of fear only seemed to feed his own need. "What I want is not always good. I still want blood on my sword, to know nothing but the rush of war. When I look at you, I feel the same want, and–" He shook his head, words choking off. One slow breath followed another until the lines of his face softened. "Today I saw you dead."
Sinbad reached up and closed his hand around Gunnar's forearm. "And now I'm alive again tonight. Why waste time?"
Gunnar sighed, shoulders slumping. "That's what I thought, watching you at dinner. Then I thought–" He didn't need to say anything else; Sinbad knew what he'd been thinking.
He squeezed Gunnar's arm. "I'm told I never think things through," he said cheerfully. "All I know is that you're beautiful–in a funny foreign way–and you like me, and you'd cut off your own arm before you hurt me. So why not?" Even if he restricted himself to listing just people that liked him, the selection seemed to be getting smaller by the day. "Besides, look at my luck with women lately. You'll be saving me from myself."
A sharp puff of breath escaped Gunnar's lips, and he dropped to sit on the deck. "Again, yeah?"
"Always, Gunnar." He used his hold on Gunnar's arm to lever himself up until they were kneeling in front of each other. "Stop thinking and let this happen."
This time Gunnar's hand curled around the back of his neck, rough skin catching on his braids. Gunnar pulled him in and kissed him fiercely. His lips barely parted, but Sinbad felt like Gunnar was trying to drain the last water out of an empty gourd. He found his fingers digging into Gunnar's arm until he let go and remembered to breath. As he relaxed, Gunnar pressed into the kiss, and Sinbad felt as though he were trying to make every moment of contact mean as much as it could. He felt his heart pounding as he pushed back. He tilted his head more so their teeth didn't knock and opened his mouth. His hands found Gunnar's sides, and he could feel him shuddering under his touch.
Heat rose, consuming him. He rucked up Gunnar's shirt. As his palm connected with bare, scarred skin, Gunnar pulled away. He kept one hand on Sinbad's shoulder to hold him back. His eyes were wide and dark, and even by lantern light, Sinbad could see the pink burning his skin. The flush made his beard seem even more golden.
They stayed caught in that moment, eyes searching each other, until Gunnar recovered his breath enough to say, "This is ship is too small."
Sinbad shrugged. "They all know by now." He'd made love in more crowded places, and Gunnar probably had too, but Gunnar wore that intractable frown now, and Sinbad was learning at least a little about picking his battles. "We could swim to shore," he offered instead.
Gunnar opened his mouth, closed it again, then laughed. "Why not?"
"I'll tell Cook we're going." Sinbad clambered to his feet and skipped off toward the hatch. Glancing back before he went below, he saw Gunnar kneeling on the deck in a pool of lantern light. His head was tipped back to look through the rigging to night sky. His back was straight and his shoulders set.
Sinbad grinned and went below. He'd see how long that calm lasted once they got ashore.
Reviews warm the heart. Flames warm the hearth. Constructive criticism welcome.